Youssef Nabil

One of the largest and most mysterious of Youssef Nabil’s hand-painted photographs is a portrait of the artist tucked into the woods of Vincennes, an English garden in the eastern part of Paris. Foliage crowds the corners of the composition, a lily pond catches the reflection of surrounding trees, and there, set back and centered, the artist’s arm slips out from beneath a blanket of leaves to expose the curve of his back and the nape of his neck.

Self-Portrait, Vincennes, 2003, was one of forty-five photographs included in Nabil’s solo show “Portraits Self-Portraits.” One of his most substantial exhibitions to date, it displayed the full range of his work, from brassy celebrity shots to quieter depictions of himself and friends. Like all the self-portraits, the one from Vincennes carries an erotic charge muted by melancholy. Nabil always shows himself alone and traveling abroad, the nomadic artist lost in a string of unfamiliar settings. He often avoids showing his face to the camera, but even when he does, he glances away or closes his eyes as if sleeping, dead, or daydreaming. The result is a pattern of attraction and deflection that makes viewers complicit in his voyeuristic game. Nabil consistently draws us into his own acts of pursuit. We search for him as he searches for something or someone else, leaving us to wonder: What is he doing, slinking through this landscape like something in a Monet painting, revealing a body like the one never quite found in a film by Antonioni? Is he the hunter or the hunted? And what, then, does that make of us, the viewers?

Born in Cairo and based in New York and Paris, Nabil assisted fashion photographers David LaChapelle and Mario Testino before he began exhibiting on his own. Their influence is palpable in his celebrity portraits of Jean Paul Gaultier, Rossy De Palma, Naguib Mahfouz, and Omar Sharif, as well as in the amplified, seemingly aberrant attitude of one self-portrait showing just his shadow cast on a concrete wall bearing the stenciled declaration: I WANT YOU TO KNOW, I’M GONNA BE A BIG, BRIGHT SHINING STAR. THAT’S WHAT I WANT AND THAT’S WHAT I’M GONNA GET.

More playful and less boastful are his photographs capturing a generational cross-section of artists, mostly women and mostly residents of Cairo. He homes in on singer Natacha Atlas’s dramatic décolleté and crops the firm body of belly dancer Fifi Abdou abruptly at the sternum. Legendary Egyptian movie star Youssra plants a sumptuous kiss on her own reflection while Lebanese-Egyptian artist Lara Baladi romps like a little kid on an overstuffed couch.

All of Nabil’s portraits celebrate their subjects in one way or another, but, fun as they are, their surface glitz rings hollow compared to the narrative depth of the self-portraits. But there is one exception: My Friend in the Skies, Van Leo, Cairo, 1996, a portrait of the late Armenian-Egyptian photographer Leon Boyadjian—better known as Van Leo—looking timid and frail, ties Nabil’s work to the history of Egyptian studio photography and the antiquated technique of hand-colored, high-contrast, black-and-white pictures. Voraciously prolific in his lifetime, Van Leo shot countless portraits of the stars and singers who epitomized the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the ’40s, and he cast a veritable army of unknown subjects in images that aped the style of the photo-novellas that used to accompany the films. In his self-portraits, Nabil updates the faded glamour and crumbling beauty of Van Leo’s work by giving it a surreptitiously sexual twist.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie